Tyler Ennis and the Buffalo Sabres are on track for the league’s worst record. They haven’t given up hope of avoiding that infamy.
Ennis scored his team-best 20th goal and the Sabres avoided clinching a last-place overall finish with a 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday night.
“It’s a quality group of guys,” Ennis said. “We get along well. It’s a great group, a hard-working group. They want to stick around.”
Buffalo built a 4-0 lead on goals by Ennis, Mikhail Grigorenko, Brian Gionta and Johan Larsson, and then held on as Carolina made a late charge to cut the deficit to one on Eric Staal’s goal with 5:22 remaining in regulation.
Anders Lindback made three of his career-high 49 saves in the final moments to secure the win.
“It was nice to put four in, and then it was Lindback’s show,” Ennis said. “We kind of sat back too much and we relied on him. He’s been playing amazing since he’s been here.”
Buffalo entered the game a regulation loss away from guaranteeing the best odds at the first pick in June’s NHL draft, a status openly desired by many Sabres fans. That has led to some awkward vocal moments at home games.
Alexander Semin, Staal and Patrick Dwyer scored for Carolina, which nearly erased a four-goal deficit in the defeat. Carolina outshot Buffalo in every period en route to a 52-25 advantage for the game.
“Tonight wasn’t good enough,” said Hurricanes coach Bill Peters. “Not a good enough effort on the road to win in the National Hockey League, and you can’t give up four goals this time of year and expect to win.”
Grigorenko slapped at a loose puck in the slot and it beat Ward to give Buffalo an early 1-0 lead, and Gionta finished a 2-on-1 break by firing a wrist shot under Ward’s right arm to double the advantage about 10 minutes later.
Lindback was kept under pressure by Carolina, but made 23 saves in the period.
“I think he was seeing a lot of them, so it’s frustrating, but at the same time we knew we had to get traffic and get in his face and make it a little harder,” Dwyer said.
The Sabres made it 3-0 when Larsson latched onto a loose puck in the slot and one-timed it past Ward just 1:18 into the second period.
An odd bounce off the end wall ended with Larsson finding Ennis for Buffalo’s fourth goal late in session.
With the goal, Ennis reached the 20-goal plateau for the third time and is a goal shy of matching his career high. Ennis has scored 20 or more goals in each season he played more than 48 games.
“It’s one of those benchmarks you want to get to even when things aren’t going your way, to continue to play well and with good habits,” Ennis said.
Dwyer began Carolina’s comeback when he dragged the puck between Cody Hodgson and Nikita Zadorov before floating a backhand shot over the screened goaltender’s right shoulder with 1:54 to go in the second period.
The Hurricanes narrowed the gap when Semin stickhandled around Lindback and behind the goal line before reaching back in front of the net to tuck the puck in.
Former Sabres left wing Nathan Gerbe came close to getting his first point in First Niagara Center since leaving Buffalo, but Lindback gloved his offering midway through the third.
“We took a lot of shots, but we need to get down in front and bear down and we won’t be in that hole,” Gerbe said.
Hurricanes coach Bill Peters pulled Ward with just under six minutes to play with a face-off in the Sabres’ end. When Staal beat Lindback’s glove side it was 4-3.
Staal also assisted on Semin’s goal, giving the Hurricanes captain four goals and six assists in his last eight games.
Peters again pulled Ward with two minutes to play, but Lindback made several saves including a prone, stacked-pad stop to secure the win.
“You generate 50-plus shots, you think there’s some looks there,” Peters said. “There was enough quality, you just can’t allow yourself to give up four and try to mount a comeback.”
Buffalo on Friday is at Columbus and Saturday hosts Pittsburgh. Only Arizona can finish with a worse record, has three games left and two more points than the Sabres.